Arts 101: Monet’s Waterlilies

It’s like watching the centuries change.

In the 22 late paintings Claude Monet made in his suburban Paris gardens during the first quarter of this century, you can see the sensibility of the previous age give way to that of the current one. And you see Modern Art being born before your eyes.

Monet is not the sole creator of Modern Art, of course. In fact, he might be considered a latecomer to the movement. By the beginning of World War I, the avant-garde of painting in Europe had already seen the advent of Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism and Futurism. And during the war it saw De Stijl and Dada.

But the old eagle, having been in on the creation of Impressionism in the 1860s, was not left behind as he plunged into his seventh decade.

And the paintings he made in his garden – some 250 of them – chart the change in sensibility.

In the earliest work seen at a recent show, his Water Lilies of 1903, you can see the familiar imagery of Impressionism. It is a picture of the surface of the lily pond on his estate. The illusion of the reflection of the distant trees in the water is seductive. Across the water float several rafts of lily pads, creating a horizontal movement across the vertical tree reflections.

The canvas is still, in some sense, a window through which we look at a pleasant scene, and the virtuosity of the illusion is astonishing.

But as the years go by, Monet becomes less interested in the illusion and more interested in the paint, so that by the time we get to Water Lilies and Agapanthus, of 1914-17, there is almost no depth to the scene. It is not a landscape at all, but a canvas inhabited by images all the same visual distance from the viewer.

If there is a single definition of Modernism, it is that painting ceases to be a virtual window we look through, and becomes one we look at.

Time after time in the late paintings, the gobs of paint build up on the surface like daubs of tar, forcing us to see the paint, the brush strokes, the patches of unfinished canvas.

As I said, Monet was not alone in this. Cezanne, for instance, had already been headed in the same direction two decades before Monet joined in. Gauguin and a host of later Post-Impressionists forced the issue. But it is a sign of Monet’s stature that he never felt as if he could merely repeat himself and his earlier successes, but continued what he called his ”little researches into forms and colors.”

Some critics of the time recognized the change. One review said, ”His language differs more and more from nature (and) replaces it.”

You can see that happening in Weeping Willow, from 1918. The painting may in part be a response to the horrors of the war that raged around him, a symbol of a weeping tree, but more than anything else it is a denial of illusionistic space. The background is the same distance from our eye as the tree trunk, all built out of the squirrelly and obsessive zips of paint.

Or the Japanese Footbridge, from the same year, in which it is difficult to find any subject matter at all. If we weren’t so accustomed to seeing the stereotyped arch of the bridge from his earlier paintings, we’d be hard pressed to say what the picture is of.

One after another of these late paintings becomes about paint, or rather, about the application of paint to surface. In some, the application is soft and feathered, in others, it is violently gouged into the canvas.

Monet’s accomplishments are all the more astonishing in light of his increasing blindness. Beginning in 1912, he developed cataracts in both eyes. By the end of the decade, he was mixing colors more by memory than by eyesight, sometimes using the names printed on the side of the tubes instead of the pigments, which were becoming increasingly distorted by his clouded corneas.

In a way, Monet became the visual equivalent of Beethoven.

At the time, there were those who believed the change in Monet’s painting was caused by the cataracts. They blamed the eye disease for what they thought was a falling-off of Monet’s talents.

The painter went into surgery in 1923 and the cataracts were removed, restoring his vision. But the change in the painting style remained; it was not due merely to pathology.

The 22 paintings in the central portion of the exhibit will not make everyone happy. They are not the easy-on-the-eye parasol and silk-skirt paintings that Impressionism devolved into. As others around him repeated the stylistic habits he pioneered 40 years earlier, and let Impressionism descend into shtick, Monet moved ever forward, finding ever new things to express.

He was disgusted with these epigones, and as hordes of largely American imitators descended on the little town of Giverny to create an ”artists’ colony,” Monet even considered moving away. Artists don’t live in colonies.

But he stayed until his death in 1926, unable to leave the gardens he created and loved.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he once told an interviewer. ”I do not deny I am proud of them.”

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